Peace group hopes for life after war

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The goal is to create a viable liberal organization in Southeast Missouri.

Around the start of the war in Iraq, Dr. Marcus Bond, Dr. Robert Polack and their colleagues in the SEMO Coalition for Peace and Justice would have been out on the street, protest signs in hand, talking to anyone who would listen about the issues. But today's coalition is a different animal -- a long-term progressive and issue-based organization readying itself to live beyond the war.

Instead of meeting in the streets they meet in the homes of members, sometimes monthly, sometimes weekly. Committee members plan educational events, like showing films at the public library and co-sponsoring, a speech by Sue Niederer, a member of the Gold Star Families for Peace, at the Osage Community Centre on Thursday.

The weekly street protests at the corner of West End Boulevard and Broadway were simply not effective, said Bond, and too dangerous, with threats of violence leveled against members.

"We have been verbally and physically abused and harassed," Polack said. "People who supposedly believe in freedom will literally physically intimidate us to the point we can't be out on the street."

The self-proclaimed progressives don't dwell on the hostility.

"There was a concern the signs just weren't readable anyway," Bond said.

'Trying to relive the '60s'

Opposition to the coalition's street protest came from people with ideas similar to those of Rodger Brown, a Cape Girardeau Vietnam veteran who is president of the local chapter of VietNow.

Brown has opposed the coalition from the beginning and calls their opposition to the war "sedition." In Brown's eyes, it's not possible to support the troops but oppose the war, as coalition members say they do.

"It's like they're trying to relive the '60s," Brown said. "I think they're cowards, and they're scared to death the draft will be reinstated."

The coalition says the war hasn't made America safer, but for Brown the proof is undeniable.

"If they don't believe it was a threat, how can they explain that we have not been attacked since we've been there?" Brown said.

Despite the opposition, the coalition has soldiered on.

The progressives currently have corporate status in Missouri and are working on getting not-for-profit status and setting up bylaws that will carry them into the future. While the formal membership is only the committee members, the group boasts a mailing list of 400. About 100 of those have been added since the beginning of the summer.

They also have a Web site with news links, news stories by members and blogs not just about Iraq, but about the environment, poverty and other issues.

The goal is to create a viable liberal organization in an area dominated by conservative politics -- Southeast Missouri.

"As they say, from the tiny acorn grows the mighty oak," Bond said.

Key policy issues for the coalition go beyond the war. In its mission statement, the coalition advocates such ideas as creating a more equitable society economically and socially and sustaining the environment.

When the Missouri Legislature was considering funding cuts to the state's Medicaid program, the coalition co-sponsored a forum at the Osage Community Centre concerning the impact of those cuts in the spring.

For coalition member and social worker Bernie Dirnberger, Iraq looms huge, but so does the health-care issue. He speaks words that are blasphemy in Southeast Missouri.

"Marx was right," Dirnberger said. "Capitalism is doomed to fail because of greed."

By invoking Karl Marx, Dirnberger doesn't want to conjure up images of the totalitarian communist regimes of the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe but the New Deal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt. To Dirnberger, socialized medicine is a no-brainer approach to helping the less fortunate.

"I think we should have health care for everybody," he said.

Still focused on Iraq

Even though the coalition has expanded its focus to more issues, the main policy emphasis remains the war in Iraq. But where the coalition used to talk about preventing the war before it happened, it now has a new buzz word -- accountability.

Having Niederer speak in Cape Girardeau will remind people just who is to blame for the death and destruction caused by the war in Iraq, Bond said.

Niederer's son died in February 2004 while trying to disarm a bomb. She now travels the country, speaking out against the war.

Niederer said she jumped at the chance to speak in Southeast Missouri because the city is the hometown of Rush Limbaugh and seems to have a lot of support for President Bush and the war.

"There's a hope to change people's minds," Niederer said. "More important is for them to listen to me, to hear what I have to say, and not just turn their backs like most people do."

Introducing Niederer at the event will be 24-year-old college student Emma Franklin. Franklin is the youngest member of the organization's nine-person steering committee.

Franklin got involved with the coalition in the run-up to the Iraq war. She was never politically active before, but said now she always will be.

"I really wasn't even that involved, and that's why I can relate to people who just don't know any better," Franklin said. "That's why I feel it's so important to get people involved and aware of the issues that are happening."

But while support for the war is declining on the national level, the members of the coalition are still in the minority in Southeast Missouri, at least among the politically active.

Brown is pretty sure the situation will remain that way.

"I'm not so sure they've become a laughingstock, but I think there is a multitude of people who think they're foolish," Brown said.

335-6611, extension 182

Want to go?

What: speech by Sue Niederer, co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace

When: 6:15 p.m. Thursday

Where: Osage Community Centre

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